You have to call it the Danica 500 now. Although she faded to eighth place on Sunday, the moment Danica Patrick won the pole position for the Daytona 500 — a week before the green flag — the Great American Race revolved around her. Jeff Gordon, one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers, officially became The Guy Next to Danica when he qualified second to earn the first-row starting spot adjacent to hers. His own daughter wanted to get a picture with Patrick, who has won exactly zero races to Gordon’s 87 victories. “I sent a note to Danica,” said Roger Penske, one of NASCAR’s legends and team owner. “’You are now our new American hero.’ My wife and daughter have such a high regard for her.” Never mind that Penske’s top driver, Brad Keselowski, is the defending NASCAR champion.
Oh, the race. Patrick was clearly the speed car going in, having turned in 198-mph lap in qualifying. Although she quickly dropped back after the start she held her place in the top 10 for most of the race. Then in lap 90, she took the lead, and in the process become the first women to lead a lap at Daytona— she was also the first woman to lead at the Indianapolis 500. But it was some guy named Jimmie Johnson, the winner of five previous NASCAR championship titles, who would grab the glory with a late move to win his second Daytona.
This year’s Daytona was always going to be something of a mystery because of the introduction of NASCAR’s new Gen 6 cars. Built to look more like those that come off the assembly lines, stock cars, in other words, they had never been raced before. In practice earlier this week, drivers were reluctant to get too close to each other, fearing crashes.
For Tony Stewart, Patrick’s boss at Stewart-Haas Racing and the winner of the wrecked-marred Nationwide series race the day before—more than 30 spectators were injured by flying debris— the main thing was to stay out of trouble until the last part of the race, then risk everything. Other drivers were playing the same game. That’s why the race was marked by long periods of single file running with relatively few passing attempts. “It’s like playing high-speed chess,” he said, “and I’m a checkers player. It’s about figuring out what position you need to be in at the end of the race at the right time. I’m not sure everyone has figured it out.” Stewart was very much in the wrong position when he was taken out by a wreck started by Kasey Kahne. Patrick’s speed allowed her to stay out of trouble. “The front was the calmest place to be,” she said afterward. “Up front is nice on these speedways.”
Keep looking for her up front because Patrick is the real thing, which is a big thing with NASCAR, an outfit that has been keen to connect with a younger, more diverse audience. “Danica appeals to every demo that we have,” says NASCAR marketing boss Steve Phelps. As she filed into the drivers’ meeting Sunday morning, Patrick looked like the smallest kid class. She’s is 5 ft. 2 in. and weighs about 100 lbs.—maybe the heft of a single racing wheel. But she can handle a 3,400-lb. race car as well as her peers, although Patrick admitted that her own inexperience may have hurt her. “I was thinking in the car: how am I going to do this. I didn’t know what to do exactly,” she said. Sunday was just her 11th Sprint Cup race. She’ll figure it out.